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No Man's Sky - Sean Murray talks Switch, this week's 4.0 update, and the future

"I think we are sort of the happiest and the most productive we've been in...years".

It's been another busy year for No Man's Sky. Not only has the exploratory space sim received three significant updates in 2022 - delivering some of the most meaningful revisions it's yet seen its six years of post-launch support, developer Hello Games has been working behind-the-scenes on bringing the game to a number of new platforms in the not-too-distant future: Switch, PSVR2, iPad, and MacOS. Of those, Switch comes first, arriving on Nintendo's console - alongside a major 4.0 update for all players - this Friday, 7th October. Ahead of release, Eurogamer sat down with Hello Games boss Sean Murray to discuss the 'madness' of porting to Switch, No Man's Sky's eagerly anticipated 4.0 update, the studio's future, and more.


ON THE STATE OF THINGS IN 2022

Somewhat incredibly, it's been over six years since No Man's Sky's infamously rocky launch, during which time the studio has released a staggering 20 free updates, massively changing the trajectory of the game, both in terms of its scope and reception. "In general," Murray tells me when I ask about the studio's outlook in 2022, "I think we're a really happy team. I think we're sort of the happiest and the most productive we've been in the last five or six years… The launch of No Man's Sky, if I was to plot that on a graph, it was maximum stress, and there's been a gradual but steady improvement year-on-year in how we do things and within the team. I think we're enjoying it, you know."

Murray attributes much of the studio's revitalised outlook to No Man's Sky's ever-growing community. "We're so lucky to have a player base that's really engaged with this, and is really welcoming and happy," he explains. "And we get to make updates that generally go down well, [and] we get a lot of buzz from that process… I feel like we've planted the garden and that was the hard work… and we're tending to the garden now, so we can enjoy it. It's there for our enjoyment as well. There's a game there, and I can sit down and lose myself in it, talk with others on the team and get excited about features and stuff. I'm not saying it's not hard work at times, but it's a nice relationship."

July's Endurance release marked No Man's Sky's 20th post-launch update since launch.

It helps too, says Murray, that Hello Games has settled into a development rhythm that's able to support a closer relationship with No Man's Sky's community. "The first [big updates], we were spending a year working on those," he explains," and the community would see nothing from us, and it was a really different relationship. There was no room for experimentation, you couldn't just try something out and see how people would react - we were grafting on it for a year, crossing our fingers. And the reason we were having to do that is because we were doing these big, fundamental changes, and we were laying a lot of groundwork for where we are now. And now, we have much more solid foundations, I think - it's a joy, you know, any day there's 100,000, a few hundred thousand people playing - and we're able to put things in the game, and they can be out very quickly. And then we can… see how people react to it, and interact with it, and then build upon it."


ON NO MAN'S SKY'S 4.0 UPDATE

As it happens, No Man's Sky's next major update - known as 4.0 - isn't far away, arriving this Friday, 7th October, alongside the game's Switch port. "Normally when we bump the version numbers," explains Murray, "we've added a new platform… 2.0 was Xbox, 3.0 was VR, 4.0 is Switch… and we take the time to sort of revisit the fundamentals of the game a little bit… It's a moment where we can do that, where we feel we should, because we're going to have new players coming in, starting fresh".

However, 4.0 marks something of a departure from previous major number bumps, and Murray is keen to keep expectations in check. While 2.0 and 3.0 [titled Next and Beyond, respectively] were "huge updates in terms of content", he explains, "that isn't the case, here". Instead, 4.0 brings extensive changes to what Murray calls "the more design-heavy elements" of the game: balance, difficulty, and structure.

"For me," he continues, "this update is for if you've said, 'Look, I played No Man's Sky and I wanted to love it, but I bumped off it a bit because it was a bit grindy, [or] if you said 'I want to come back, but it's been ages and there's been so many updates and it feels overwhelming'… You've probably had this experience where you've come to a game where it's been updated a tonne and… sometimes those [elements] don't fit as cohesively as you'd like. We hear this sometimes, and I think it's true… and so what we've done [in 4.0] is we've revisited a bunch of things that are really impactful from the design perspective."

No Man's Sky's Foundation update arrived in November 2016, marking the first step in its radical evolution.

To that end, 4.0 features "lots of streamlining in terms of the tutorial, when you unlock certain things, what's available to you", all intended to fit No Man's Sky's six years of updates "into a more cohesive whole". That streamlining will also extend to the game's inventory system, which, in turn, has enabled Hello Games to "massively increase what is effectively the level cap", meaning bigger inventories, and the opportunity to level up ships and weapons further than was possible before.

Additionally, 4.0 introduces No Man's Sky's first new game modes since the arrival of Creative and Survival in 2016's Foundation update. "When we [originally] launched," explains Murray, "we made the game a little bit more difficult and more grindy, perhaps, because we didn't have the breadth of content [we do now]. But now people come in and they want to see a mech, they want to see the story, they want to go to the Nexus and things like that, and so we wanted to find that right balance for new players".

As part of that goal, 4.0 adds a new Relaxed mode (playable with either a fresh or existing save), which Murray calls a "very fun version of No Man's Sky where the focus is on exploration, less on just surviving and grinding, [where it's easier] to see the six years of content that's there". This, he says, works well for first-time players, "but I think it's [also] a common request from people who might have longer playthroughs, who might want just a game where they kick back".

On top of that, among its various other revisions, 4.0 brings an overhauled Survival mode and tools for custom games. "Survival is [ccurently], I think, at its strongest in the first few hours as a game mode," Murray explains, "[so] we've made it a much more challenging, more unique experience." Custom games, meanwhile, will enable players to create bespoke sessions that better fit their needs at any given time, featuring options to adjust everything "from controls, to difficulty, to how a lot of those sort of fundamentals work in terms of the pacing of the game… which opens up a whole bunch of different ways to play the game that weren't there before."


ON THIS WEEK'S SWITCH RELEASE

4.0 arrives alongside No Man's Sky's Switch port, an endeavour that was met with both delight and - given the relative technical limitations of Nintendo's console - a certain degree of incredulity among fans when it was announced earlier this year. Murray says he can understand that scepticism, admitting, "I do agree. It certainly on the face of it seems like madness. And I had that reaction myself, to be honest."

Murray says his initial reaction to the idea of No Man's Sky on Switch was partly down to the nature of the game itself. "This might sound bad," he explains, "but I was unsure as to whether it was suited for mobile play. I mean, I've played long-form games [on Switch before] but, generally, it's hard to know how much of the rest of the world is like me - is it more focused on shorter, more mobile experience, more drop in, drop out or whatever?". However, Murray says all his apprehensions vanished when Hello Games adapted No Man's Sky for Valve's portable Steam Deck earlier this year. "It has been a real surprise to me to see it in the top 10, top five of the most played games on [Steam Deck] for months and months," he says. "That makes us feel like, okay, maybe it is [a good fit] and, you know… over the last few months, as the Switch version has come together, I find myself really gravitating towards it."

As for the technical challenges of squeezing No Man's Sky onto Switch, Murray says Hello Games has made a "concerted effort" over the last three or four years to improve No Man's Sky's performance on both top-end and lower-end machines, "and so at some point, some folks on the team were like, 'I think Switch is possible', and then everyone said the worst thing, which is like, 'No, it's not'. And that just made a bunch of people think, 'Okay, well, I'm going to try and prove that it is'. Over time, it just showed more and more promise… and more and more of the team have gotten excited about it and piled onto it".

Switch is just one of three new platforms No Man's Sky is confirmed to be heading to in the future.

As a result, No Man's Sky on Switch feels like a "very similar experience" to other platforms from a gameplay perspective, and "surprisingly at home", with the team having had to make surprisingly few compromises to the core experience. By way of example, Murray explains the team had anticipated Switch would need its own version of the game's universe, expecting that the demands of procedural generation would make it impossible for Nintendo's console to have parity with other platforms. "I would have assumed and did assume [that]," Murray admits, " [but] what's really surprised me is that we haven't done, we've managed to keep them in parity - you see a tree on the PlayStation 4 version or the PS5 version, and it's there on Switch version… So the discoveries are shared, if you name a planet or whatever, those are the same".

Ultimately, the studio opted to make two key feature concessions. First, the sprawling, town-like settlements introduced in last year's Frontiers update will be missing on Switch. "The most performance-intensive things… the very biggest constructs are something we wanted to sort of avoid on [the platform]," explains Murray.

But perhaps of more significance is the absence of multiplayer, which the team chose to omit as a result of its focus "on performance and on kind of picking our battles getting the gameplay across". As Murray puts it, "Multiplayer in No Man's Sky is important, I love it as a feature, it's great… [but] it's not our most important feature compared to other games that have multiplayer. A lot of people play No Man's Sky effectively alone, single-player, and [Switch] is less focused on multiplayer as well, because of the nature that you're playing it on a train, you're playing on the toilet, out and about or in bed at night or whatever. Loads of people play multiplayer games on Switch… but it's a smaller percentage, and so our attitude is release, and see how people interact with it, and see what's important to them and react to that".

No Man's Sky on Switch features all content from other versions, minus settlements and multiplayer.

As for whether those absent features might one day make it to Switch, Murray remains cagey. "I think I never want to make promises about anything or allude to anything… I really would like to avoid that," he laughs. But at launch, Switch will include all 20 updates so far released on other platforms, as well as the new 4.0 update, meaning newcomers will have a wealth of toys to play with - including access to all future curated Expeditions - in their intergalactic sandbox. "Beyond that," teases Murray, "we already have a whole bunch of stuff lined up that I think people are going to be excited for."


ON THE FUTURE OF NO MAN'S SKY AND HELLO GAMES

Six years on from No Man's Sky's launch, though, and with the game in a healthier state than ever, it's hard not to wonder how long those updates can continue. "I would love to know where we are in the journey," Murray laughs when I ask him, admitting he simply doesn't know. "I just feel lucky that people are playing it, that people care, and I feel super lucky that the team enjoys it… I just think it would be horrible to try and make a team do updates they didn't have any ideas for it or even enjoy. And I also don't think we'd do it if the player base wasn't playing the game or enjoying it, you know. But whilst those two things are true, it's sort of what we get out of bed in the morning for, knowing that people are playing it for longer."

"I will be honest and say it is so surprising that it's gone on for this long," Murray adds. "It's lovely, every day it's nice that we have that opportunity, but every year, I'm like, I'm sure next year no one will be playing No Man's Sky and no one will have any ideas, we're surely out of ideas now or out of enthusiasm. And that's got to be true at some point. But if Switch comes out, and it becomes a really important platform due to the number of players, then there'll be a whole load of enthusiasm. But you know, I don't sit here and think I know whether those things will happen or not. I'm very, very fallible".

The Last Campfire, Hello Games' first release since No Man's Sky, launched in August 2020.

But what of Hello Games' endeavours away from No Man's Sky? While Murray confirmed the studio is already working on its next project earlier this year, he remains reluctant to say more when I ask what else might be in store. "I'm so hesitant to say anything about anything [the studio is working on]," he says, "but there's a surprising amount. That is one thing I am really amazed by, there's a surprising amount going on - some of which people know about, and way more that people don't. And I think in five years' time, I will look back and think, 'Christ, how did we do all that with this few people?'… I think our next project is quite far along, and it's a lot further along than No Man's Sky was when we announced that. And I'm enjoying that. You know, I'm quite happy to be in that place."

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Matt Wales

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Matt Wales is a writer and gambolling summer child who won't even pretend to live a busily impressive life of dynamic go-getting for the purposes of this bio. He is the sole and founding member of the Birdo for President of Everything Society.

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